TOMMY GEMMELL was one of the most colourful and charismatic characters in Celtic history.
In ANOTHER CQN EXCLUSIVE series, author Alex Gordon, a long-time friend of the Lisbon Lion, opens his book files to reveal some tales of the flamboyant full-back.
Alex says: “When I was interviewing Tommy for his autobiography, ‘All The Best’, which was published by CQN in 2014, he often talked about his friendly rivalry with unpredictable superstar George Best.
“Here’s another extract from Tommy speaking about the wayward Manchester United and Northern Ireland genius.
I FIRST played against George Best in a pre-season friendly at Celtic Park in August 1966. It was the start of that unique campaign when Celtic won everything in sight, including becoming the first British side to conquer Europe.
Manchester United came to Glasgow with their full array of glittering talent. Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles had become World Cup winners with England that summer and, of course, two other good friends, Denis Law and Paddy Crerand, were in the team.
Bestie lined up at outside-left that afternoon and I was at right-back with Willie O’Neill over on the left.
Of course, I knew all about Bestie’s reputation. The first time I had seen photographs of him in the press I didn’t think he looked old enough to cross the road on his own. Now, though, I was in direct line of fire.
In normal circumstances, it’s good to give your opponent a wake-up call early in the game. Just a wee dunt to see if he’s got the heart the size of an Aspirin. I duly challenged Bestie and realised immediately he had the heart the size of a lion.
Other players could quickly fade out of the picture if they thought they were in for a hard time of it. I’m not talking about breaking a leg or anything quite as severe. No, I’m talking about a good, solid tackle that would get your opponent’s bones jarring.
WALLOP…Tommy Gemmell fires in a shot in a derby encounter against Rangers.
There wasn’t much of Bestie, but he was afraid of nothing. He just kept coming back for more.
At one stage, Jock Stein leapt out of the dug-out and yelled at me: “For God’s sake, Tommy, it’s only a friendly. Don’t kick him.”
I shouted back: “If I don’t kick him he’ll destroy me.”
Jock, of course, was a big friend of United gaffer Matt Busby and, clearly, didn’t want to upset his good mate by seeing one of his most important players being booted all over the park. I have to say Bestie gave as good as he got.
It was the same when I played against Willie Henderson in Old Firm encounters. Wee Willie, like Jimmy Johnstone, was made of stern stuff. He never found a convenient air pocket to disappear into, either.
We ended up beating United 4-1 that day and the Old Trafford side, with Bestie in brilliant form, went on to win the English First Division at the end of that season.
There was another occasion when he tore Scotland apart during a Home International match at Windsor Park in Belfast in October 1967. It was a crisp afternoon, but that particular pitch was known to cut up quite badly as a game wore on.
BEST OF COMPANY…Manchester United’s magical trio of Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best.
You could take one look at Bestie’s slight frame and wonder if he could wade through tricky underfoot conditions. Wade? He danced. Bestie defied the elements in a devastating display that took everyone’s breath away. Mine included.
He tormented me throughout a one-sided first-half. He was a wiry, little character who could ride challenges better than anyone I had ever faced. Honestly, he was unstoppable that afternoon. At the interval, our manager, Bobby Brown, was rightly worried about the skills of the Irishman.
“How on earth do we stop this guy, Tommy?” he queried.
My first thought was: “I suppose a rocket launcher is out of the question?”
On a more serious note, I ventured: “The first thing we could do would be to try to cut off his supply. If we get tighter in midfield that might stop the flow of passes coming his way. I’ll get in quickly any time the ball comes anywhere near him.
“If he gets past me, we’ll need someone to come out and close him down sharpish.”
Easier said than done, of course.
GREEN FOR GO…George Best takes on Celtic duo Tommy Gemmell and Bobby Murdoch in Northern Ireland’s 1-0 win over Scotland at Windsor Park in October 1967.
Actually, I wondered if left-back Eddie McCreadie would consider swapping places with me. Of course, I was comfortable at No.3 and Eddie was quite at home on the opposite wing. I practically begged him: “I’m having trouble with Bestie, Eddie, do you fancy a stint on the right?”
His curt replay was advice to go forth and multiply. But I was smiling at the start of the second-half. After the brusque refusal of a change in positions from my so-called friend and ally, I had braced myself for some of the same until I noticed Bestie had switched wings and was lining up at outside-right.
He must have got fed up torturing me and was now about to do the same to my full-back partner McCreadie. I looked across at Eddie.
“Good luck,” I shouted. “Bet you wished you had swapped!”
I thought Eddie was a first-rate defender and was one of the quickest on the turn. Unfortunately, Bestie was simply awesome on a pitch that deteriorated with every passing minute. Northern Ireland won 1-0 with a second-half goal from Dave Clements after he was set up by You Know Who after a darting run down the right and a low cross into the box.
It could have been about five or six if it hadn’t been for a superb goalkeeping display from Ronnie Simpson, who made three top-class saves from Bestie.
“At one stage it was me v. Ronnie Simpson,” said Bestie later. No-one could argue. My old Celtic pal also held a penalty-kick from Johnny Crossan low down to his left and if it hadn’t been for an inspired performance from him we would have been totally humiliated in Belfast.
Alas, my Celtic team-mate was denied the banner headlines.
And it was all down to that man Best.
*TOMORROW: Don’t miss the further adventures of a Celtic legend.